Are you the type of person who, when faced with a big red button and a sign that says, "DO NOT PRESS," is going to press that button to see what happens? If the answer is yes, then Swarm is the kind of game that is right up your alley. One part action game and one part puzzle, Swarm pulls inspiration from the classic PC game, Lemmings, while at the same time crafting a world that is distinctly its own.
The title represents the swarm of 50 swarmites that you control over the course of the game. Your goal within each level is to collect enough points to help the mother of the swarmites grow. Looking vaguely like a large blue plant with tendrils, mother drops off your swarmites at the beginning of each level by lowering one of her tubes. She picks you up at the end in the same way. In between, it's up to you to keep the swarm alive (for the most part).
You see, although keeping your swarmites alive is usually a good thing, sometimes you have to make a sacrifice for the greater good. In this case, that greater good is the bonus multiplier. Every time you collect an item (or kill a swarmite), the multiplier timer resets to the maximum. Since it is advantageous to have a higher multiplier, if there is no item in sight, your best move is to kill off one of the little blue buggers.
Granted, you need to strike something of a balance, as some items and switches are impossible to reach or trigger unless you have a full set of swarmites, but for the most part, speed and efficiency are more important than keeping every last one of the swarmites alive.
Adding to the fun is the simple fact that swarmite deaths are tracked. The game keeps track of how you died (and how many swarmites you lost), awarding "death medals" based on your performance — or lack thereof, as the case may be.
What keeps Swarm from making the jump from "enjoyable" to "totally awesome" are the controls. Dastardly level design is fun, but it only works well when the controls are solid, and in Swarm that doesn't happen all of the time. The problem is that the developers have simply mapped too many different functions to the same set of buttons. Because of this, it is not uncommon for your swarmites to do one thing when you are expecting another. Oddly enough, this problem could have easily been avoided because half of the buttons on the controller actually go unused.
Visually, Swarm sports some strong imagery, presenting a world that is at once both playful and dangerous. The designers have opted for a number of bright colors, making everything seem warm and fuzzy — even the stuff that is trying to kill you. Background billboards show off new features whenever you encounter something new, helping players get to grips with the complete move set. It's a subtle way to avoid forcing a boring tutorial level upon you.
Leave your swarmites alone for too long, and the camera zooms in on the group as they sit there looking confused. Each one has its own individual idle animation, giving the group personality and character. The more you play, the more you almost start to feel bad for the little guys every time they die … almost.
The puzzle aspect of the game comes in because there aren't enough items in each level to win on straight points alone. You need to have the multiplier active for the maximum amount of time, and doing so means determining the best path through each level. Not only do you need to have good reflexes in order to excel, but you also need to know when an item is worth collecting and when it is best left alone.
If you don't meet the requisite amount of points in a given level, you won't be able to move on, as the next level only unlocks once the prior goal is met. Completed levels can be replayed at any time in a quest for a higher score, so there is quite a bit of replay value for arcade hounds who want to be on top of the leaderboards. Having each level individually ranked doesn't hurt.
When all is said and done, Swarm is one of the few titles that can make frustrating, fun. It's certainly not a game for everyone, but if you can overlook some of the rough edges, there is a good time to be had. At 1200 MSP ($15), Swarm is on the pricier side for a downloadable title, so if you're on the fence, give the demo a try first. But if you've been jonesing for some good Lemmings-style action, this may be the closest you're going to get unless Sony decides to revive the Psygnosis classic one day.
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